How to close literally thousands of open browser tabs

Within the past fortnight or so, I have been taking an online course on Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) called "Building a Second Brain". It is run by Tiago Forte, and I have been following him for a while. I took one of his Udemy courses a while back, and I follow him on his Praxis blog.

One thing I learned about, that I had not considered, was the concept of a Reactivity Loop. The idea being, there are things that come up that grab our attention. Maybe it is urgent - maybe it is something less urgent that you have been wanting to do, but it nags at the back of your mind. In either case, the cognitive load predisposes you to react to something. A classic example might be social media notifications. Emails and phone calls fall into this category for a lot of people, too.

What grabbed my attention, though - my open browser tabs.

The problem

See, there was a live chat during this session, and when I mentioned that I had 500 tabs open (which is Safari browser's hard limit on iOS) - it got quite the reaction from the chat. It then occurred to me that each open tab was grabbing at my attention, something left unsettled. A reactivity loop. Not on the same level as social media popups, but a reactivity loop nonetheless. As long as those tabs stayed open, some attention would go to them - the cognitive load is still there.

Now, I am a voracious infovore. I am a very curious person, and I want to know everything about everything about everything. At the time of this revelation, I had :

  • 500 tabs open in Safari on my main iPad

  • 186 tabs open in Firefox on the same iPad

  • 386 tabs open in Safari on my iPhone

  • 55 tabs open in Firefox on the same iPhone

  • 700+ tabs open in Firefox on my Macbook Air, spread out across three windows...

You get the idea. Tons of open tabs with information that I found useful, information relevant to projects that I am working on, and that I completed, and that I planned. There would be times where I would have issues selecting tabs to get to the one I needed, so I would just open another window. Given that I use multiple devices, I would use another device if it were more convenient.

Oh sure, I had bookmarks - but they were not organised well at all. It all just ran together. And there was a definite impact on the performance of my devices. But I actually did use those open tabs as a kind of reference, a loosely curated list of things I found useful. Clearly, however, that is not an appropriate use of the browser tabs.

The solution

Once I became aware that I needed to properly get through the browser tabs in a way that reduced cognitive load, I started looking for bookmarking tools. I wanted something that worked better than the browser default tools, something that worked similar to the way Delicious did. Remember ? Pepperidge Farms remembers...

Delicious would let you sort bookmarks several layers deep, but it would also check for broken links. This is very important for certain technical information, as vendors shuffle things around or move them behind paywalls all the time. Or perhaps a personal blog with a really good resource goes dark. There are other similar services out there, but they seem to be too heavy - too many other distracting features that get in the way. But then I found :

Raindrop <>

This app is cross platform, has a mobile app, and extensions for every major browser. It does everything Delicious did, without too much heavy ceremony. It is literally a bookmarks manager with Zapier and IFFFT intergration, an API, and several other modern conveniences. But it does not try to do any other than manage bookmarks.

Breaking the reactivity loop

With Raindrop, I was able to bookmark all of the open tabs, then sort them into an Archive folder based on which device I got them from. The first step is important from a raw psychological perspective - I did not want to miss anything. The second step is important from a cognitive load perspective - only what you are working on in the moment should be in focus. Everything else should be hidden, and retrievable based on when you need to use it.

Archiving all of the open tabs stopped the same clutter from overrunning Raindrop, so that I can proactively use it to stop this issue from happening again in the future. A neat, orderly, curated collection of bookmarks is much better than a raw dump of all the open tabs. So, the initial raw dump goes into the Archive folder.

Once all the open tabs were bookmarked in Raindrop, I knew I could access them from all of my other devices - they do have a cloud sync feature. So to reduce cognitive load further, I also put all of my existing bookmarks into the same place in Raindrop. This allows me to totally nuke the browser bookmarks bar - or the browser install itself - and start over from a clean slate.

A few special notes about Safari

Firefox and Brave both have had a few tools to group tabs, get multiple bookmarks at once, and manage bookmarks and tabs - these tools are fairly straightforward to use. Safari, on the other hand - it was very much a tedious experience. The desktop browser was somewhat tolerable when trying to bookmark multiple tabs, but the mobile version of Safari had no way to do that at all. And tab grouping? Putting related tabs all together so that you can move them to a new window or close them all at once when you are done? Not possible.

At least, not until iOS 15 and macOS 12 (Monterey)

Now, literally within the past month or so, it is possible to group tabs together, and bookmark multiple items very easily in both mobile and desktop Safari... so that's exactly what I did. The jump in performance and battery life on my iPad was significant. Grouping all the open tabs let me grab them and archive them once and for all - for while iOS does not have support for Raindrop as a Safari extension, I could send all the tabs in a group to my Mac Mini. All 500+ of them. From there, Raindrop happily ingested them all.

The aftermath

Raindrop shows me that, across all my open tabs from all my devices, as well as my bookmarks, I had 7.2k links. Of those, only 389 were broken, and approximately 700 or so were duplicates. I have successfully closed all the open tabs on my mobile devices, except for about 10 or 20. The only tabs I have open anywhere are on my Mac Mini, and my Chromebook - and I have been trying to start a new habit of closing the tabs, or sorting them into Raindrop when I am done.

The cognitive load is a lot lighter, as I can search my bookmarks instead of manualy searching my open tabs. The reactivity loop around using my browser is certainly reduced, if not elmintated. For the past few days, I have been able to use my browser as a focused tool to work on the active projects I have, without tirpping over or sorting through all of the other open tabs. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and Her Majesty's corgis are beying to serenade the new dawn upon me.

Other things to try

Besides Raindrop, there is OneTab <>, which is very helpful in grabbing all the open tabs in a browser window, then giving you a list to export (or restore later, but for this situation, you would not want to restore them all later - not without curating them first)

Instapaper, Pocket, and Readwise also come up - these are all in the category of "read later" apps. I am stil not quite comfortable with Pocket, and all of these apps just seemed to be too heavy for what I needed.

Doom Emacs also comes to mind - Org Mode in Emacs is legendary, and they even have org-roam meant to make it even better for PKM. The Doom distribution puts in Vim keybindings, as God intended.

Finally, you could always just close all the tabs, and/or install the browser again from scratch - but where's the fun in that?